ANXIOUSLY APPLYING first aid to its economy, France has chosen a program that strongly resembles Mr. Nixon's in 1971. The reasons were precisely the same in both cases--painfully slow growth and high inflation. That two very different governments, the Nixon Republicans and President Mitterrand's Socialists, should resort to the same prescription reminds you how narrow the choices are.
The French have devalued the franc and imposed a wage-price freeze into next fall. Like the Nixon administration 11 years ago, the French have found that their attempts to kick the engine into faster performance only damaged the currency. The devaluation concedes the damage, and the freeze attempts to forestall the wave of price-raising that would normally follow.
First aid serves one useful but limited purpose: it buys a little time. The Nixon administration misused its advantage by cranking up the American economy for the 1972 election campaign. By the time the experiment was over, the inflation rate here was higher than it apparently would have been with no intervention at all. Since a French president's term runs seven years, that temptation, at least, does not confront Mr. Mitterrand.
Controls on wages and prices are one way to deal with inflation. The other way--and there seems to be only one other--is to run the economy deliberately in low gear at a cost measured in rising unemployment and erosion in the standard of living. That's the course that the United States, Britain and Germany are currently pursuing. France's inflation rate remains around 13 percent a year, as it has been for some time. Germany's has been falling, and is now under 5 percent.
Several years ago, Germany seemed to be the only major European country demonstrably committed to holding inflation down. Now the pattern is reversed. Most countries of Northern Europe and, notably, Britain have succeeded in bringing their rates down sharply. Among the larger countries of Western Europe, only Italy and France still have inflation rates above 10 percent. The success of France's latest prescription will make a difference to more than the French, for in the world trading system the weaknesses of any major competitor necessarily and sharply touch all the others.